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Investors who lost $1 billion in the Goldman Sachs structured ABACAS CDO were handed a strategic road map by the SEC when it filed the civil fraud complaint against Goldman on Friday. The alleged misrepresentation to ACA by Goldman that Paulson was long the equity tranches of ABACUS and the omission to disclose to ABACUS investors in writing and orally that Paulson handpicked securities in ABACUS while it was simultaneously shorting the same securities are the crux of a potential claim by ABACUS’ investors against Goldman. But what path should investors forge to recover their losses? Court or arbitration? The recent RaceTrac v. Bear Stearns arbitration award shows that a large investor can win a private arbitration against a significant brokerage firm related to misrepresentations and omissions of CDO’s regardless of the risk disclosure language contained in the prospectus.

Since the subprime market meltdown, only one multi billion dollar investor has received a legal award or judgment against brokerage firm for misrepresenting and materially omitting to disclose facts related to CDOs. RaceTrac Petroleum, an Atlanta-based chain of more than 525 retail gasoline convenience stores in the southeast U.S., won a $3.4 million award against Bear Stearns in December 2009. The FINRA arbitration panel ruled that Bear Stearns was liable for misrepresentation and material omission, negligence and failure to supervise related to the Bear Stearns High Grade Funds, a CDO packed hedge fund which caused $1.6 billion in losses in 2007.

The issues in the Goldman ABACUS case are very similar to the Bear Stearns High Grade case. Did Goldman misrepresent or omit disclosing a material fact to the ABACUS investors? Instead of filing a lengthy, costly, public civil lawsuit against Bear Stearns, RaceTrac filed an arbitration claim at FINRA in December 2007 seeking $5 million in damages. Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against the funds’ portfolio managers, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin. In March 2009, on the eve of the arbitration hearings in Atlanta, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in New York ran into federal court in Brooklyn to try to stop RaceTrac from going forward with the arbitration until the criminal trials of Cioffi and Tannin were completed. Judge Block shut the government down and allowed RaceTrac to proceed. A jury then acquitted Cioffi and Tannin of all criminal charges November 2009. However, after 16 days of private arbitration hearings, the FINRA arbitration panel ruled that Bear Stearns was liable and awarded damages of almost 70% of RaceTrac’s investment.

The investment world is buzzing about the SEC’s fraud allegations against Goldman Sachs for misrepresenting and omitting to disclose Paulson’s role in choosing RMBS securities for the ABACUS CDO and then shorting the same individual RMBS through CDS transactions with Goldman. According to the SEC, “investors in the liabilities of ABACUS are alleged to have lost more than $1 billion.” It is hard to tell whether direct investors in ABACUS lost $1 billion or whether that includes companies which had CDS risk exposure to it. Either way, what are the money losers going to do about it?

According to the SEC complaint, IKB, the German commercial bank, bought $150 million of Class A-1 and Class A-2 Notes which seem to look like the AAA-rated upper tranches of ABACUS. But there is no other disclosure of who else bought ABACUS from Goldman. I presume that IKB was very cooperative with the SEC and allowed its name to be used in the complaint as opposed to being dubbed “Investor #1”. IKB has likely been negotiating with Goldman behind the scenes. I expect to see a civil complaint filed by IKB against Goldman in federal court in New York shortly. However, they are probably better off arbitrating the dispute for numerous reasons (privacy, low cost, limited dispositive motion practice, etc.).

The SEC complaint also explains how a division of ACA, the monoline insurance company, served as the “Portfolio Selection Agent” for ABACUS, and another division of ACA (ACA Capital) also sold protection on $909 million of the super senior tranche of ABACUS through credit default swaps as well. ABN AMRO, the European bank, then assumed that same exposure through CDS deals with Goldman and ACA. The complaint alleges Goldman defrauded IKB, ACA and ABN AMRO. ABN AMRO was bought by the Royal Bank of Scotland and after ABACUS went to almost zero, RBS paid Goldman $841 million, most of which was then paid by Goldman to Paulson due to Paulson’s short bets on the underlying tranches. Got that?

The SEC charged Goldman Sachs with defrauding investors of ABACUS 2007-AC1, a synthetic CDO created and sold by Goldman in early 2007 when the subprime world was reeling. Investors in ABACUS ultimately lost $1 billion.

The SEC’s civil fraud complaint alleges that Goldman allowed the multi billion dollar hedge fund Paulson & Co. to help select RMBS (residential mortgage backed securities) for the Abacus CDO, knew that Paulson was concurrently shorting specific tranches of the CDO but did not disclose anything about Paulson to investors in the CDO offering documents or marketing materials.

This is a huge development in that it shows SEC has the fortitude to file actions against the biggest firm of all related to its failure to disclose material information to investors. Goldman will likely be the brunt of civil lawsuits or arbitrations related to the ABACUS CDO. The next question is whether the SEC will file claims against Paulson as well.

There’s a very good piece in the Financial Times today about Goldman Sachs by Francesco Guerrera and Tom Braithwaite. It’s available online at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/1eb0ea18-d497-11de-a935-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1

The authors explain how competitive Goldman is and how profits and risk management drive the firm. They go on to explain how difficult it will be for Goldman to handle the backlash of paying out huge bonuses in an environment of double digit unemployment rates.

For a long time, Goldman was by far the gold standard of investment firms. Much of the financial crisis stems from every other firm trying to be like Goldman and making huge, leveraged bets with proprietary capital. The difference has been that Goldman has always one stop ahead of the rest of the Street. Partly due to the “market color” it receives as an investment bank, prime broker, clearing firm, counter party, and trader, Goldman somehow is nimble enough to know when to stop on a dime and bet the other way. Merrill, Citi, Morgan and the rest could never do that. Merrill, especially, was three steps behind and was late to the CDO game just like it was late to the prop trading game and the internet craze.

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